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How to Reimagine (and Enjoy) Your Family Hikes

by Meghan Fitzgerald

On a recent family trip, we fell into a classic trap. We got super bummed that our kids were stinkers on what was supposed to be an amazing family hike.

30 minutes in, on came the whining, bickering, and mathematically impossible 3-way struggle to “go first.” The stakes felt high. Our, “we flew all this way” and “we are so lucky to be here...come ON guys” did not inspire the desired “good camper” behavior. One sister pushed into a prickly pear later, we ended our hike defeated and pretty disappointed in our team.

That night, Brian and I started reviewing the day as our hikers slept away. How did we think the hike went? Should we try again tomorrow? Throw in the towel? Why were the girls acting that way?

We started imagining the dream hike, listing words like long, whine-free, harmonious, peaceful and continuous. Then, we tried to imagine any 24-hour period during which our trio consistently earned these descriptors, and we just laughed. What were we thinking?!

Our struggle is part of parenthood

As we talked, I also remembered that, not only are our girls growing and changing, but we adults are still developing too. Researchers and theorists even have names for stages of adult development, several of which are specific to our experiences as parents. For example, Ellen Galinsky suggests that stage 1 of parenthood as a time of “Image-making.”

Even before our babies come into our lives, we start to form a personal image of parenthood, envisioning what lies ahead for ourselves and for our babies. As parents move through each stage of parenthood, we carry these images with us. As reality inevitably presents itself, we respond by either adjusting our visions to match reality or by changing our own behavior to better match our preexisting image of parenthood and ourselves as parents.

Forcing our kids to conform to our image of ideal family hiking was clearly not working, so it was time for some serious image-making. What was it about our expectations on hikes that we needed to adjust?

First, our quest for the perfect family hike was completely unrealistic. Seems obvious now, but we were unwittingly blowing the journey for the promise of the destination.

Further, there is no way to build kids’ stamina without pushing their limits. It’s unreasonable to expect kids not to get hungry, tired and express the feelings we all feel when we exert ourselves. Learning to feel and manage a little struggle will serve our kids well. The only ones really suffering were us, caught in the chasm between our vision of “family hikes” and the real deal.

Reimagining family hikes

So, the next day, we got right back out there, but we agreed to lower our expectations. The girls didn’t behave all that differently, but our experience was transformed.

Since this trip, we’ve been talking with friends and colleagues about hiking. Most friends feel pretty much as we do. Their hikes are speckled with challenging moments, and they are grateful to hear ours are, too.

We’ve collected the following tips and tricks from these conversations. We’re no longer leaning on them to get us to the “perfect hike,” but we’re testing them as fun ways to make our quite imperfect hikes even more fun for all.

  1. Think longer term: It was game changing when my pediatrician told me not to sweat how much the girls eat in each meal, but to think about it over the course of a month. If you apply the same mindset to hikes, a month full of small walks in the woods starts to feel just as good, and maybe even better, as one or two long (and likely more fraught) hikes.

  2. Focus on the journey, not the destination: Try not to fall for the promise of reaching a summit or killer view point. Just walk and go at the pace the group sets. That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage the team to pick up the pace a bit here and there, just don’t get discouraged if they remain slow or if the path you take veers off the charted course.

  3. Expect and even embrace some struggle: Hiking requires exertion, and young kids work hard to cover a distance. It is great for them, but it is asking a lot. So, be ready to see them express the effort they’re putting forth. That doesn’t mean this is harming them, or that they can’t take it.

  4. Build in snacks you all love: Favorite snacks make any activity sweeter for kids. Plus, breaks and boosts of energy help keep young kids going.

  5. Repeat a favorite hike: Adult brains love novelty, but kids learn a ton when they get to repeat the same thing over and over. Plus, there are endless discoveries to make on the very same stretch of trail. Don’t be afraid to repeat what works for your team.

  6. Team up: Get friends and their little ones on board for hikes too. Hike with your Tinkergarten classmates or look for a local hiking organization like Hike it Baby. Community sustains us all, and other kids can really bolster your kids’ energy on hikes.

  7. Use field guides: If you have photos or field guides that you can use to identify local plants and animals, kids can be on the lookout for them. Let kids hold them and feel a sense of ownership of the search. Field guides can stoke curiosity, build stewardship and give us a reason to slow down and care for the flora and fauna around us. We love these Audubon recommended bird guides for kids. We’ve also had luck asking for field guide recommendations from our local nature center and searching for kid-friendly field guides for a given region.

  8. Take sensory breaks. Every so often, stop and close your eyes. Wonder what you smell, hear or feel. Our girls love these chance to “see with our other senses.”

  9. Manage collections: Collecting is marvelous for kids, and it can make time outdoors fun and engaging. But, we’ve both lived and heard so many stories about kids and parents weighed down with so many treasures. To keep this manageable and teach kids not to remove too much from the trail, identify a small bucket, bag or container for collecting. Then, the rule is, you can stop to observe and love any object, but you can only tote along what fits in the container at any given time.

  10. Keep a hiking passport. Download your state or the national park passport. Make a chart or notebook and put a stamp or checkmark every time you take a hike. Leave the chart in the car so your kids can add a stamp, the date and notes about each hike. This concrete reward reinforces the value of whatever you decide to call your hikes!

  11. End with gratitude: At the end of your hike, stop to share what about the hike made you most grateful. Even if someone was pushed into a prickly pear, you can still end on a high note of shared thanks for the endless gifts nature provides.